Insight article

Storytelling and the Scottish independence referendum

A conversation with a Glasgow taxi driver today got me thinking again about the Scottish independence referendum, looming close now in September. I'd been interested a couple of months ago by the very different types of message each side of the debate were putting out.

It seemed to me that Alex Salmond and the Yes campaign were seeking to tell a compelling story of an independent Scotland free from the constraints of Westminster, looking to stir nationalist pride and give voters confidence in this image of the future. The response from the No campaign was centring around the rather drier, and less inspiring, legalities of keeping the pound and remaining a member of the European Union.

Chris Deerin, of the Scottish Daily Mail, says it well: “Those seeking to save the UK have spent too much time pointing out the pitfalls of independence, and not enough creating a compelling, optimistic case for staying in the Union.”

This isn't to say that those tangible issues aren't at the very heart of the debate. My taxi driver worried about the businesses that would move their HQs to England, the cost of building 27 border checkpoints and the 20 years of debt the whole process would create. But rational arguments on their own rarely win the day. People defer to their emotions and instincts when it comes to making decisions, and there's nothing like a compelling story to stir those emotions. Polls seem to be support this point, with the Yes campaign rising steadily 7 points since the start of 2014.

So this vote isn't being won on the relative strength of each side of the rational debate. Rather it's about the power of the stories that can be crafted, and the vigour with which they're told. Chris Deerin in his article congratulates the Yes campaign for casting the referendum as a “battle of values – the caring vs the selfish”, while longing for the No team to remind us that “we inhabitants of these islands are the same people.”

The Storytellers wouldn't want to enter the debate, of course, but for the sake of balance we do look forward to hearing the stories that the No campaign can tell of benefits of the Union. Roll on 18th September!

Nailia Tasseel